I look at the state warily. I assume the state is necessary but dangerous. I support certain state-initiatives (like Obamacare or “for cause” termination policies) but still worry over the cost they enact in limiting individual autonomy, redistributing wealth the “wrong” way, or creating the wrong incentives. I believe that the more discretion one gives the state, the more control of the state becomes an ever higher stakes contest that risks empowering people who shouldn’t have power.

Timothy Snyder, in his conclusion to Black  Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (2015), seems to provide a reason to embrace the state with less apprehension than I do. (Disclosure: I’ve read only the conclusion to Snyder’s book, not the book itself.) Snyder says Hitler’s destruction of state institutions in eastern Europe and the German-occupied parts of the Soviet Union made the Holocaust possible (p. 337):

The dominant stereotype of Nazi Germany is of an all-powerful state that catalogued, repressed, and then exterminated an entire class of its own citizens. This was not how the Nazis achieved the Holocaust, nor how they even thought about it….The Nazis knew they had to go abroad and lay waste to neighboring societies before they could hope to bring their revolution to their own….Not only the Holocaust, but all major German crimes took place in areas where state institutions had been destroyed, dismantled, or seriously compromised. The German murder of five and a half million Jews, more than three million Soviet prisoners of war, and about a million civilians in so-called anti-partisan operations all took place in stateless zones.

From the next paragraph (p. 337-338):

When the Holocaust is blamed on the modern state, the weakening of state authority appears salutary. On the political Right, the erosion of state power by international capitalism seems natural; on the political Left, rudderless revolutions portray themselves as virtuous. In the twenty-first century, anarchical protest movements join in a friendly tussle with global oligarchy, in which neither side can be hurt since both see the real enemy as the state. Both the Left and the Right tend to fear order rather than its destruction or absence. The common ideological reflex has been postmodernity: a preference for the small over the large, the fragment over the structure, the glimpse over the view, the feeling over the fact. On both the Left and Right, postmodern explanations of the HOlocaust tend to follow German [“Leftist,” per Snyder] and Austrian [“rightist,” per Snyder] traditions of the 1930s. As a result, they generate errors that can make future crimes more rather than less likely.

Snyder follows with what in my opinion is a heavy-handed, unconvincing, and strawman argument against freer markets and a somewhat more convincing, but still heavy-handed argument about the need for states to do something about global warming.* His fear is that if global ecology is not improved, some polities might adopt a zero-sum stance toward world resources reminiscent of Hitler’s quest for Lebensraum and engage in the same eliminationist policies that Hitler did.

That said, Snyder’s comments about the state are worth considering. I trust that the book (again, unread by me) documents pretty well the Nazis’ success at dismantling state institutions.

And what I’ve read of his argument seems to jive with what I know of the Holocaust. There were concentration camps and forced labor camps in “stated” areas, but the bulk of mass murders and actual extermination camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka were located in places whose state institutions had been destroyed. At one point in the conclusion, Snyder states that Jewish people who could escape the “stateless” areas, which in a previous book he called the “Bloodlands” of eastern Europe, to “stated” areas, like Germany proper, stood a much better chance of surviving because some semblance of the rule of law existed. And as Snyder also points out in the conclusion, people with official (or official-seeming) passports could bank on better treatment. Hence the efforts of some diplomats to save Jewish people by issuing passports to safe areas.

Elsewhere in the conclusion [p. 340-341], Snyder says

When states are absent, rights–by any definition–are impossible to sustain. States are not structures to be taken for granted, exploited, or discarded, but are fruits of long and quiet effort. It is tempting but dangerous to gleefullly fragment the state from the Right or knowingly gaze at the shards from the Left. Political thought is neither destruction nor critique, but rather the historically informed imagination of plural structures–a labor of the present that can preserve life and decency in the future. One plurality is between politics and science. A recognition of their distinct purposes makes possible thinking about rights and states; their conflation is a step toward a total ideology such as National Socialism. Another plurality is between order and freedom: each depends upon the other, although each is different from the other. The claim that order is freedom or that freedom is order ends in tyranny. The claim that freedom is the lack of order must end in anarchy–which is nothing more than tyranny of a special kind. The point of politics is to keep multiple and irreducible goods in play, rather than yielding to some dream, Nazi or otherwise, of totality.

In my opinion, Snyder’s distinction between “politics” and “science” is too neat. And perhaps the problem isn’t statelessness, but absence of governance. I’m aware there’s a distinction between government and governance, and I’m hard put to explain it but the former seems to have something to do with a state and its monopoly on legitimate coercion, and the latter to do with….well, I’ll  have to do more reading on it, but it seems hard to imagine governance of densely and highly populated societies without something like a state structure.

Or maybe what’s missing isn’t “the state” or “government” or “governance,” but that nebulous thing(s) called “civil society.” That’s another term I’m not sure how to define, but I take it to mean the existence of autonomous groups and voluntary affiliations independent of the state, but not asserting a prerogative to coerce beyond, say, determining who can and cannot be members. Taken as a whole, perhaps “civil society” offers the “multiple and irreducible goods” that can help fend off totalitarianism.

My own understanding of prewar Nazi Germany seems to support this. Nazi rule was disastrous, but civil society in Germany seems to have endured enough after 1933 to successfully oppose some Nazi policies, such as the “euthanasia program” against people with disabilities.**

All in all, though, and with the caveats I’ve mentioned, I find what Snyder’s argument difficult to refute. I’m not sure I’m quite on board, but I don’t wish to dismiss it entirely.


*And to be clear, my objection isn’t that his argument is unconvincing, but that it’s wrong to conflate opposition to addressing AGW and AGW denialism (not necessarily the same things in themselves) with what Snyder seems to think is the self-evident argument for a specific policy he supports, which as I understand is taxing carbon-emitting companies for the excess carbon they produce.

**See this account: “…the ‘euthanasia’ program quickly become an open secret. In view of widespread public knowledge of the measure and in the wake of private and public protests concerning the killings, especially from members of the German clergy, Hitler ordered a halt to the euthanasia program in late August 1941.” I do not wish to make too much of this resistance. According to the site I linked to, the program had been going on for about two years, which means many, many were murdered under this program before it was discontinued.And however successful the protesters may have ultimately been in this case, they certainly didn’t prevent the Holocaust and were probably (most of them) silent. It’s also unclear if a similar protest movement could have been so successful in, say, a hypopthetical 1951 Germany that had won the war. But the protest against the program suggests a certain power that some elements of civil society (in this case the clergy) could exert even in a totalitarian regime.

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17 Responses to Statelessness in the Bloodlands

  1. Joe Sal says:

    Many atrocities occur in war. Wars of significant magnitude require a state structure to amass armies to nation state levels.

    All wars that create casualties over a million are created by authority figure(s). Further, the majority of these authority figures plot high in the y-axis. Statists of the left and right build the institutions that these authorities use by either coopting or creating an opposition movement to win dominance.

    I can’t find instances of leaders in low y-axis left and right that have resulted in massive wars or casualties. IMO it almost always takes an agent of ‘authority’ to kill massively.

    In Stalins regime, he was able to kill plenty within the boundaries of his state. I’m not sure how well/what this stateless/state comparison can conclude. Maybe it’s just a difference in how coercion is manifested in the state.

    When a state force is built, a war force is built. Maybe avoid producing standing armies, and locally distributed non-state militia, but that’s crazy talk these days.

    • RTod says:

      I mostly agree with everything Joe Sal says here (as I so often do!), but I would tweak it somewhat: The real requirement of state-sponsored atrocities is either the desire or the indifference to commit them by a society’s general populace. This is why arguments about atrocities that center around the danger or the existence of a State don’t hold much water for me. Whenever you review history’s atrocities, either against foreign or domestic citizens, you find that they almost all occur because those actions reflect the prejudices and the will of the majority.

      As such, I have always found the state of the State to be immaterial. If a society has both the power and the desire to subjugate or harm a group it feels to be sufficiently Other, it will find a way to do it — right, left, or libertarian though their leaders might be.

      • Joe Sal says:

        It probably depends on how the populace views their agency:


        Which, if the populace begins with the premise that the state is above individual agency, the results will follow the order of authority.

      • The real requirement of state-sponsored atrocities is either the desire or the indifference to commit them by a society’s general populace. This is why arguments about atrocities that center around the danger or the existence of a State don’t hold much water for me. Whenever you review history’s atrocities, either against foreign or domestic citizens, you find that they almost all occur because those actions reflect the prejudices and the will of the majority.

        I agree that the atrocities require the complicity of the populace, but I think they’re aided, in some (many? most?) cases decisively by some sort of planning or central direction. I think the Holocaust depended on the willingness of local populations to assist, and if Ordinary Men is any indication, most of the Germans who participated did so willingly. But I don’t think it would have happened without the Nazis.

        And I think you’re actually agreeing with Snyder, who seems to be arguing that states can provide a barrier of sorts to such atrocities. But that doesn’t address Joe’s Stalin example.

        Neither does it address another point I take Joe to be making, namely, that destroying other states requires a state apparatus or that a “state” of sorts is still present, just in the form of military governance. (I apologize to Joe if I’ve got his argument wrong.)

    • greginak says:

      It seems like modern technology is what makes killing lots of people really easy. Out groups have always been prone to be the victims of mob violence. It’s happened in many places over a long time; the outsiders get killed or burned or pushed out in response to some incident. Modern tech just raises that to a more efficient level. It’s more the people than anything else.

      • aaron david says:

        Not really, as we have since the end of wwII had machines of terrifing ability to kill. No, Tod has the gist of it, it is the people who make this happen, weather they build gov’ts to allow it, or form up mobs.

        • Joe Sal says:

          What is the highest quantity of death a mob has produced outside of government?

        • greginak says:

          I think you are agreeing with me. It is the people. Modern tech makes mass killing much easier then old fashioned hand crafted mass murder.

        • aaron david says:

          That is a good question Joe. I was thinking about the pogroms of Tsarist Russia, for which I have no numbers. But other than that, it really takes logistics, organization, and direction, and the gov’t has the greatest ability to amass those three.

          Greg, got you. I think we are in agreement there, don’t know how I missed it.

        • Joe Sal says:

          From what I have read of the pogroms, there was participation of state agents, from priests to secret police involvement, organizing and planning at an authoritative level.

          In the modern era we don’t often think about priests as agents of the state, but history has shown this occurs often in associations of authority.

    • Joe,

      I think the first part of what you say is consistent with Snyder’s argument (or what I think his argument might be if I actually read the rest of the book). I think Snyder might say that war creates a “stateless zone” and that in Hitler’s case, this was pretty much by design I.e., not just an example of things gone out of control; or, that Hitler wanted a Holocaust and knew that he could do it by creating a stateless area and then pursing his final solution.

      As for the example of Stalin, I thought about that, too, and am curious how Snyder reconciles that argument. I know he’s written another book, published a few years before Black Earth, that looks at the similarities Stalin’s and Hitler’s crimes (and he’s no apologist for Stalin). So I don’t know how he accounts for the fact that in one case you hadn’t a state and in another, you did.

      • Joe Sal says:

        There is another aspect to consider. Before the shadows of nation states covered the earth, factions/tribes would escape atrocities of the state by fleeing into stateless regions and creating new societies with different preferences than the state they fled.

        It has only been in recent history that factions are not finding sustainable stateless areas to flee to.

        • That is what I think I was getting at–albeit not in exactly those terms–in my musings about “civil society.” If there is a robust network of voluntary associations that are free from state control, then those can serve as a pocket free from state intervention. Not exactly the same as fleeing to a stateless area–and unfortunately probably less possible the more coercive the state is–but it’s probably a marker of a healthy “liberal” society today.

        • Joe Sal says:

          I think what you are describing would require a significant portion of the population in the low y-axis to provide the pockets of statelessness/divergence that would provide refuge from the authority of state.

          Liberalism in a central political context rests near mid y-axis, so it begins at approx 50% authoritarian in it’s position. We could hope it would provide the shelter needed, but I wouldn’t bet my families life on it.

          The other problem is the population density of anti-authoritarians is relatively low, and probably a slim fraction of that number would admit that they are inherently so.

          The pockets would be very small islands surrounded by an ocean of potential damage. A safe continent would provide a much better life.

        • I should say I don’t get the references to “y-axis,” etc. Is there a link or something that explains it?

          Your comment seems to suggest that a robust civil society–assuming I even understand correctly what civil society is–is almost impossibly too difficult to achieve. Or maybe I’m misunderstanding your point when you say, “what you are describing would require a significant portion of the population in the low y-axis to provide the pockets of statelessness/divergence that would provide refuge from the authority of state.”

          I’m not sure how rare robust civil society is, but I’d wage the US has a lot of it and the USSR ca. 1935 did not. I suspect our tendency as humans is to gravitate toward voluntary associations. I’d almost say it’s “natural,” but “natural” is such a loaded word.

          Maybe “pockets” was the wrong word. I’m not intending to isolate rare instances of autonomous institutions. Rather, I’m suggesting an abundance of them. Not islands, but associations that people can join or quit voluntarily. They’re not necessarily–or even likely, in my view of “civil society”–to serve as grand bastions against repressive authority. Rather, they’re formed for their own, usually trivial (in comparison to the great issues of the day) purposes. They’re bowling clubs or bars where the same people hang out regularly.

          I’m kind of making this up as I go, but not entirely. It’s something I probably need to think about more.

          I should say that by “liberalism” I meant something more like the 19th century liberalism and not the “central political context” you mention. But I wasn’t at all clear in my comment.

        • Joe Sal says:

          No worries, and if I sound critical it’s not my intent. I’m picking through the pieces of what has occurred over several millennia.

          The y-axis is the up and down measure of the political compass. We are used to things being on the x-axis (right and left), but this new measure allows a scale of authoritarian versus anti-authoritarian (libertarian)



          Hope this helps with what I was describing.

        • I don’t think you’re being particularly critical. There’s a lot about this I haven’t decided on yet.

          And thanks for clarifying. Now that you’ve shown me those graphs, I think I have encountered the idea before, just didn’t remember it.

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